SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA—History teacher Leloy Claudio recently tackled Filipinos’ obsessions with titles in his videocast “Basagan ng Trip” for Rappler, saying that the insistence on being called “attorney” or “architect” is “arrogant.”
Claudio, who has a Ph.D, said that he looks askance at the use of titles even in academe, for instance, calling a Ph.D holder “doctor” or any university teacher “professor” regardless of whether they actually hold that rank.
He prefers to address everyone as “mister” or “miss.” These two titles, he says, “are good enough.” Why? Because “it equalizes things” and puts everyone on the same level. “But they’re still respectful to each other,” he says. “Mr. and Ms. are not disrespectful.”
The penchant for insisting on “trade” and professional titles, he says, “says something about the culture we live in,” where social division and social inequality are manifested in speech.
Claudio says plain “mister” and “miss” are more democratic. “We are all Filipinos.” The trip he’s breaking is kayabangan. “Huwag nating i-parade sa buong mundo kung ano ang na-achieve natin.”
Some commenters on the post agreed with his view, while others opined that using titles was a sign of humility on the part of the speaker and their respect for the other person.
This is an interesting topic because we all know people whom we call by their professional titles. Some are low-key about their accomplishments while others are so proud that their attainments are carved into their desk lapidas or printed on calling cards.
Claudio says such insistence is a sign of arrogance. “Brandishing,” as Claudio calls it, one’s stature elevates one at the expense of another. But is that all it is?
Being called “doctor” or “architect” also establishes identity. As Claudio observed, we call physicians “doctor” so we know who to call if someone has fainted. Titles in this case signify areas of expertise, which would be helpful information in certain contexts, conferring credibility and eliciting trust and confidence.
Others use titles because they are unabashedly proud of what they have achieved. In the provinces, it is popular for families to hang signs outside their homes showing how many degree holders they have. It is outright showing off, but it can be argued that the practice is also inspirational and aspirational. And parents do have bragging rights.
Titles also help establish markers for human connection and communication. Upon meeting someone for the first time, we wish to know the basics about them so that we can “place” them in our minds. This knowledge helps us negotiate social relations. Knowing someone’s title enables us to behave accordingly toward them. Telling others your title also helps them decide how to behave toward you.
This is not always a democratic thing, not always a good thing, but it is a cultural phenomenon in our country. Claudio decries this insistence upon rank. I agree with him, but until mindsets change, Filipinos find it easier to deal with others if they know where they stand socially in relation to the other, and using titles is considered part of polite social behavior.
Insistence on titles is also a sign of insecurity. Being called “attorney” reassures the person that they have reached a certain degree of success through their efforts. It helps mitigates feelings of anxiety and inadequacy and boosts self-confidence.
One principle of using titles is reciprocity, but it isn’t always observed. Several attorneys I know delight in being addressed as such but do not bestow the same respect on Ph.Ds, claiming the title of “doctor” belongs in the academe only. The retort to that is they should be called “attorney” only in a courtroom.
Here in the US, social relations are as democratic as Claudio envisions for the Philippines. In general, bosses are called by their first name, not “sir” nor “ma’am.” There is no harping on positions. It doesn’t matter greatly whether one is managing director or a regular employee—the important thing is that you’re both working for the same company. (This does not apply to the academe, which is a world of its own.)
The social divide (not the same as economic inequality) here isn’t as wide as it is in the Philippines. I don’t miss calling managers “ma’am-sir,” which smacks to me of a slave tugging the forelock. I don’t miss the bowing and scraping and calling the arrogant lawyers “attorney.”
The customs and practices associated with professional titles will be hard to eradicate, but Claudio’s breaking of this particular trip is timely and relevant.
It’s time to address social inequalities and find ways to level the playing field, and foster practices that bring us together rather than keep us apart.
Facebook and Twitter: @jennyortuoste